A skeletal curve of mountainous rock stretched out across the Norwegian Sea, the Lofoten islands have been the focal point of northern Norway’s winter fishing from time immemorial. At the turn of the year, cod migrate from the Barents Sea to spawn here, where the coldness of the water is tempered by the Gulf Stream. The season only lasts from February to April, but fishing impinges on all aspects of island life and is impossible to ignore at any time of the year. At almost every harbour stand the massed ranks of wooden racks used for drying the cod, burgeoning and odiferous in winter, empty in summer like so many abandoned climbing frames.
Sharing the same history, but better known and more beautiful than their neighbours the Vesterålen, the Lofoten islands have everything from sea-bird colonies in the south to beaches and fjords in the north. The traditional approach is by boat from Bodø and this brings visitors face to face with the islands’ most striking feature, the towering peaks of the Lofotenveggen (Lofoten Wall), a 160-kilometre stretch of mountains, whose jagged teeth bite into the skyline, trapping a string of tiny fishing villages tight against the shore. The mountains are set so close together that on first inspection there seems to be no way through, but in fact the islands are riddled with straits, sounds and fjords.
The Lofoten have their own relaxed pace, and are perfect for a simple, uncluttered few days. For somewhere so far north, the weather can be exceptionally mild: summer days can be spent sunbathing on the rocks or hiking and biking around the superb coastline, and when it rains – as it frequently does – life focuses on the rorbuer (fishermen’s huts), where freshly caught fish are cooked over wood-burning stoves, stories are told and time gently wasted. If that sounds rather contrived, in a sense it is – the way of life here is to preserve Lofoten’s thriving tourist industry – but it’s rare to find anyone who isn’t less than completely enthralled by it all.
The tersely named Å is one of Lofoten’s most delightful villages, its huddle of old buildings rambling along a foreshore that’s wedged in tight between the grey-green mountains and the surging sea. It’s located five kilometres south of Moskenes, where the road abruptly ends.
One of Lofoten’s most picturesque and beguiling of headland villages, HENNINGSVÆR is a cobweb of cramped and twisting lanes lined with brightly painted wooden houses. These frame a tiny inlet that literally cuts the place in half, forming a sheltered, picture-postcard harbour. The town is well supplied with accommodation, eating establishments and excursion options, and almost inevitably, coach parties are wheeled in and out, despite the narrowness of the two high-arched bridges into the village. For all its hustle and bustle, Henningsvær richly deserves at the very least an overnight stay.
For hundreds of years fishermen have gathered in the waters off Lofoten to catch the cod that have migrated here from the Barents Sea to spawn. The fish arrive in late January or early February and the season lasts until April. There are tremendous fluctuations in the number of cod making the journey; although the reasons for this variation are not fully understood, relative water temperatures and, more recently, over-fishing are two key components. Sometimes the cod arrive packed together, at other times they are thinly spread, their distribution dictated by water temperature. The fish prefer a water temperature of about 5°C, which occurs here off Lofoten between the warm and salty bottom current and the colder surface waters: sometimes this band of water is thick, sometimes thin; sometimes it’s close to the shore, sometimes it’s way out to sea, all of which affect the fishing. If you fancy trying your hand at fishing, you can take an organized trip (see Engelskmannsbrygga).
A popular nine-kilometre trail with mountains and lakes on one side and the surging ocean on the other, runs east from the village of Unstad to the tiny hamlet of Eggum. The scenery is stern around Unstad, a huddle of houses in a diminutive river valley set beneath the mountains and with wide views out to sea. The main draw here is the ocean: this is by far the best surfing spot on the island with a great and stable swell. The trail passes the remains of a radar station built by the Germans during World War II, en route to Eggum, an especially pretty spot, its handful of houses clinging on to a precarious headland dwarfed by the mountains behind and with a whopping pebble beach in front. Both Unstad and Eggum can be reached by turning off the E10.
An eerily deserted village with just one permanent inhabitant and a few holiday homes, the settlement of Vinstad is the starting point for the ninety-minute hike over to Moskenesøya’s northwest coast. The first thirty minutes of the hike, along an old dirt trail, are not especially enjoyable, but things improve thereafter as you proceed along the west shore of the narrow and very steep Bunesfjord with jagged mountains rearing up in every direction. The dirt trail ends abruptly just past the cemetery and you have to make a sharp left, continuing up a steep grass path that takes you over a ridge between the mountains. An hour or so on from here, you’ll reach the sandy cove of Bunes, the epitome of isolation and a smashing place to watch the midnight sun. It isn’t a difficult hike, but given that this last section can get very slippery and the weather can change in minutes, you’ll need to be properly equipped.
To get to Vinstad from Reine, pick up one of the small passenger ferries that run up the Reinefjord to Vinstad (2–3 daily; 50kr each way; t99 49 18 05).
There is a certain laidback charm to STAMSUND, whose older buildings string along the rocky, fretted seashore in an amiable jumble of crusty port buildings, wooden houses and rorbuer. It’s also home to the modern art Galleri 2 (June–Aug Tues–Sun noon–4pm & 7–9.30pm; 20kr; wgalleri2.no), 100m from the Hurtigruten dock, which is worth a look for its small canvases and lithographs of local scenes, and textile and ceramic work.
All across Lofoten, rorbuer (fishermen’s shacks) are rented out to tourists for both overnight stays and longer periods. The name rorbu is derived from ror, “to row” and bu, literally “dwelling” – and some older islanders still ask “Will you row this winter?”, meaning “Will you go fishing this winter?” Rorbuer date back to the twelfth century, when King Øystein ordered the first of them to be built round the Lofoten coastline to provide shelter for visiting fishermen who had previously been obliged to sleep under their upturned boats. Traditionally, rorbuer were built on the shore, often on poles sticking out of the sea, and usually coloured with a red paint based on cod-liver oil. They consisted of two sections, a sleeping and eating room and a smaller storage area.
At the peak of the fisheries in the 1930s, some 30,000 men were accommodated in rorbuer, but during the 1960s fishing boats became more comfortable and since then many fishermen have preferred to sleep aboard. Most of the original rorbuer disappeared years ago, and, although a few have survived, visitors today are much more likely to stay in a modern version, mostly prefabricated units churned out by the dozen with the tourist trade in mind. At their best, they are comfortable and cosy seashore cabins, sometimes a well-planned conversion of an original rorbu with bunk beds and wood-fired stoves; at their worst, they are little better than prefabricated hutches in the middle of nowhere. Most have space for between four and six guests and the charge for a hut averages around 1000kr per night – though some can cost as little as 600kr, while others rise to around 2500kr. Similar rates are charged for the islands’ sjøhus (literally sea-houses), originally the large quayside halls where the catch was processed and the workers slept. Most of the original sjøhus have been cleverly converted into attractive apartments with self-catering facilities, a few into dormitory-style accommodation – and again, as with the rorbuer, the quality varies enormously. A full list of rorbuer and sjøhus is given in the Lofoten Info-Guide, a free pamphlet that you can pick up at any local tourist office and on
Svolvær’s dramatic environs merit exploration, either by climbing one of the local peaks, or by taking a boat trip out to the surrounding fjordlands – though you’ll only really find the full range of excursions on offer in the summertime. Out of season, tours will go out once a week, at best.
Every day throughout the summer boats leave from the quay alongside the Torget in Svolvær for the Trollfjord (2 times daily; return trip 3hr; 450kr; buy tickets on board; wlofoten-charterboat.no), an impossibly narrow, two-kilometre-long stretch of water that’s also on the Hurtigruten itinerary. The intrepid might also consider making the same excursion by speedboat (3 times daily; return trip 2hr; 650kr; wlofoten-explorer.no) – heavy jackets and goggles are included.
For the best and most scenic walks in the area, take a ferry to the pretty islet of Skrova, just offshore from Svolvær. Perfect for an afternoon seascape stroll, Skrova’s only settlement trails along a slender rocky spit, its harbour dominated by the country’s largest whaling station. The village is attached by a causeway to the main body of the island, which is dominated by the steep Mount Høgskrova (258m). Before you leave, pick up the makings of a picnic at one of the shops in Svolvær and prepare to enjoy it in splendid isolation. Ferries run from the quay in Svolvær (2–5 ferries daily; 30min; 38kr each way) to Skrova, while both the express boats from Svolvær to Bodø/Narvik, and the car ferry between Svolvær and Skutvik also call in there.
Svolvær boasts one of the archipelago’s most famous climbs, the haul up to the top of the Svolværgeita (the “Svolvær Goat”), a twin-pronged peak that rises high above the E10 to the northeast of town. The lower slopes of the mountain are hard enough, but the last 40m – up the horns of the “Goat” – require considerable expertise. Daring-daft mountaineers complete the thrill by jumping from one pinnacle to the other.
For the best introduction to the northern lights, take an excursion to the Lofoten Polarlyssenter (Polar Light Centre;
91 12 46 68,
polarlightcenter.com). This rural science centre is run by a friendly Dutch couple with a collection of astronomic instruments that determine exactly when the Aurora is about to strike. In addition to a lecture on the science of the lights – and how to photograph them – they also provide an SMS alert service, which sends out messages during your stay in Norway that advise when Aurora activity is getting stronger. Located in Laukvik, approximately 45 minutes by car from Svolvær; they can arrange transport if you do not have a car.
The inhabitants of Måstad, on Værøy, varied their fishy diet by catching puffins from the neighbouring sea cliffs, then curing the bird meat in salt. They were assisted in this arduous task by specially bred dogs known as puffin dogs, or Lundehund. In order to improve their stability and traction on the steep cliffs, these small (32–38cm high) and innocuous-looking dogs developed several distinctive features, including being six-toed (as opposed to the usual four), which helps them to grip on slippery skerries and wriggle themselves through small spaces. They are also extremely flexible, with legs that bend outwards to the extent that the dog can lay completely prone on its chest (reindeer can perform similar manoeuvres). They can also close their ears against dust and moisture and can bend their heads right round onto their backs. Once reduced to only five remaining dogs, the breed was brought back from near-extinction in the 1960s and now numbers well over a thousand, a quarter of whom live in the United States.